The last intellectual
The fertile mind of the author of The Liberal Imagination
L i o n e l T r i l l i n g L I F E I N C U L T U R E
Selected letters Edited by Adam Kirsch 448pp. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $35.
978 0 374 18515 2
Afew years ago, I attended a lecture at the Sorbonne by the President of the Irish Republic, Michael D. Higgins, about Ireland’s historic relations with Europe. Because it would be in English, a French translation was circulated in advance. This referred frequently to the role of les intellectuels, which made me wonder, since the honorific use of the noun “intellectual” was unusual in English, what the President’s phrasing was going to be. This turned out to be “public intellectuals”, an awkward compound signalling the scarcity of the species in an English as distinct from French or Irish context, and the consequent anomaly of the English language’s discomfort with the unadorned noun.
If the usage, and perhaps the species, is unBritish, it is evidently not unAmerican. Lionel Trilling (1905–75) was, in the words of Adam Kirsch, the editor of Life in Culture: Selected letters, “an intellectual, a thinker about society, politics, and ideas”. Trilling, too, thought himself an intellectual. On December 16, 1953, he explained the term to an enquirer from Oxford. It “isn’t a word that charms me, but it is, in this country at least, rather forced on one. I use it with much of the sense of ‘intelligentsia’ in it”. He added: “Maybe we should say clercs!”, again suggesting the language’s inhospitality to the offending noun, even in its American variety. He elaborated impishly “that intellectuals are those people whom those of my students who aspire to be intellectuals call intellectuals!” When, in the preface to Beyond Culture (1965), Trilling spoke of New York intellectuals, he was remembering a TLS reviewer who had said one of his books was mostly addressed to a narrow class of New York intellectuals “as judged by [my] own brighter students in Columbia”. In his response, Trilling instinctively turned to the differences in “intellectual temperament” between educated Englishmen and educated Americans. The noun “intellectual” occurs frequently in the letters. It suggests a broader range of interests than “critic” and presupposes some public activism, though in England, and in American academic circles, Trilling is mainly known as a critic, once an admired species.
Most of Trilling’s career was spent at Columbia University, where he had been a student, and where he was “the first Jew to be taken on as an instructor by the English Department . . . with a view to possible promotion . . . as an ‘experiment’”. His first books were critical studies of Matthew Arnold
Lionel Trilling, 1947
(1939) and E. M. Forster (1943), and a novel, The Middle of the Journey (1947). The work that established Trilling’s international reputation, however, was his first collection of essays, The Liberal Imagination (1950), which is still the main defining document of his work and influence.
In 1953, answering a French schoolteacher, who asked what he meant by “liberal”, Trilling referred to his books on Arnold and Forster, and said his novel could be described “as a natural history of the intellectual liberal class as I understand it”. Although most of his subsequent books were collections of critical essays, he had published stories from the age of twenty, and had always wanted to write fiction. He chafed from the start at the boredom of “inconceivable departmental meetings” and the “circumambient stupidity” of his academic entourage. He established himself as part of the New York intellectual scene, becoming associated with the Partisan Review, a journal of the anti-Stalinist Left. His letters are addressed to literary scholars, former students (Allen Ginsberg and Norman Podhoretz, among others), assorted colleagues, editors, rabbis and psychiatrists, but also to other writers, including his wife Diana (outnumbering other correspondents), Edmund Wilson, Eric Bentley, Rebecca West, Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud and even Jacqueline Kennedy (the message to the latter,
correcting an administrative confusion, was dated twelve days before the assassination of her husband, whom Trilling had met at a “brilliantly memorable” White House reception for Nobel laureates the previous year).
Until the 1950s, literary critics had a status in the culture which no longer exists. One has only to think of the authority wielded by F. R. Leavis among disciples and antagonists alike, and the readiness of prestigious trade publishers to publish his writings, or those of Edmund Wilson in America, to recognize the extent of the change. Whether this is due to increasing academic specialization or other intellectual distortions of the academy, the public voice of the literary critic has become marginal. In 1972, Trilling himself reported a “cultural mutation”, a “developing insensitivity” to literature in universities, of which his letters are a barometer. Although continuing to publish critical essays to the end, he felt increasingly alienated from the critical trade and the rebarbative professionalization of graduate students, as he told John Crowe Ransom in 1948, though with undergraduates “my spirits do not sink”. In 1951, he told Podhoretz, then studying at Cambridge, that he understood Leavis’s “pedagogic rage” for the first time, and that his own instinct was to “declare a moratorium on literature as an academic study”. He told Étienne Gilson in 1955 that he accepted as the highest compliment Gilson’s comment “that I am not a literary critic”. Yet late in life he declined “to be characterized as a ‘creative artist’ . . . . Best refer to me as a critic of literature”. This Janus-like ambivalence is a feature of his thinking on almost every subject of importance.
I remember the impact of The Liberal Imagination, received by my undergraduate contemporaries in the 1950s as a work of literary criticism, but addressing issues of political and social concern more explicitly and more wide-rangingly than anything to be found in Leavis’s analyses of literary texts, for all Leavis’s affirmations of interest in a sociological approach and his efforts at educational outreach. Trilling’s intention in criticism was to “help define the proper place of literature in life”, as he wrote in 1942, a more activist conception than Leavis’s of the relation of literature to “life”. Trilling was less given to the kind of close reading Leavis practised. He disliked the “Empson–Brooks–Tate” style of New Criticism, in solidarity with Edmund Wilson, describing himself and Wilson in 1957 as “two general American critics who are not New Critics but are not Old Critics either”.
The Liberal Imagination is a quietly embattled book, stirred by the live passions of the Cold War and animated by a principled anti-Stalinism. It contains essays on novelists and poets, but also, like his later essay collections, on broader social subjects like “Art and Neurosis” and “The Kinsey Report”. Louis Menand has said that “The Liberal Imagination made literary criticism matter to people who were not literary critics”. It sold 170,000 copies. As well as being a relief from Leavisian dogmatism, Trilling’s book epitomized a difference between the English critic and the New York intellectual, whom narrowly schooled English readers like myself nevertheless read in a narrower, selective way.
It could be said that The Liberal Imagination is about liberalism as well as books. Trilling wrote in the preface: “In the United States at this time liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition. For . . . there are no conservative or reactionary ideas in general circulation”. It seems startling to read this in the age of Donald Trump or his posh British shadow Boris Johnson, and equally arresting to realize that this moderate and subtle liberal thinker, who set great store by modulation, nuance and complication, has sometimes been co-opted by neoconservative ideologues, much as hard-line Tories like to think they derive from Edmund Burke. The preface continues: “the conservative impulse and the reactionary impulse do not . . . express themselves in ideas but only in action or in irritable mental gestures which resemble ideas”. Put in this way, the analysis seems not inapplicable to present discontents.
Against this, Trilling stakes out a position for liberalism as “a large tendency rather than a concise body of doctrine”, prepared to confront its vulnerabilities, notably the inherent weakness of a reductive “explicitness” and
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